I wake up to the sounds of shouts in the street. It sounds like a huge crowd rushing and trembling. There are sounds of women everywhere. I wonder when my agony will be over before or after the festival. Today is the festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to the god of fertility.
The women folk must be out in the streets, dressed in white for the ceremonial sprinkling of animal blood on their bodies. Julia might be there too waiting for her chance for her name to be picked by her prospective groom from the urn of good luck.
I could hear the prayers from the sacred caves breaking the silence of early morning. The chants were audible as they were repeated by the women folk everywhere, from the hills to the valleys for begetting children and for good crops this year.
The huge doors are opened and I see Julia before me not Asterius or his soldiers. I am too dumbfounded for words. I’m surprised that in the midst of the festival, she has come to see me. Dressed in white, she looks more like a ghost than a real person.
It takes me some time to ask her why she has not gone for the festival near the caves of Romulus and Remus, the founding fathers of the nation. She replies in a low voice: Everyone has gone for the festival and I have stolen the keys so that I could come and see you. You need to hurry because there is a horse ready for you. You can run away from here and from death.
No, I cannot. I am a priest and I cannot break the trust that your father has showed on me, I mumble. She is not convinced and comes near me. Though it is quite dark in my prison cell, I can see her face and she looks pale. It takes me sometime to understand that she may not have recovered fully from the disease that almost took her life away. She holds on to my arm and caresses it with her long delicate fingers.
Not any longer. You are not a priest any longer. You are freed through a royal order that might in fact gain you a death worse than that of a criminal. It is better that you run away for your life. As for my father, he might forgive you because you saved my life, because he sees you as a good man. You are to be executed in the morning without any blessings from a priest. There is no time to lose.
That shocks me because I am still a priest though I might have disobeyed Claudius and his orders. There were many couples that I had married off disobeying the order of compulsory bachelorhood for all soldiers. I have seen the women cry when their men left for war. Nor was I fool not to read in Julia’s eyes, the same flash of love though I have never been with her.
Suddenly, there is an alarm raised and I see that the prison guards are on their way back. I snatch Julia by the hand and we run as fast as we can through the empty corridors. She leads the way and by the time we reach where the place where the horse is tied, we can see crowds of people, all splattered with blood on their clothes and crops back from the festival of Lupercal.
To be continued...
To be continued...